By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Social media portrays bringing home a new baby as a magical time of cuddles, snuggles and adorable baby photo ops.
While some of that is true, it’s also messy, exhausting and life-changing.
The changes that take place in a woman’s body, schedule and life can contribute to risk of post-partum depression, especially but not limited to women who are already at risk for depression.
No woman is to blame for developing post-partum depression. The hormonal changes inherent to pregnancy can trigger it unexpectedly; however, some controllable factors can help lower the risk for many women.
Breastfeeding the baby can help moms reduce risk for post-partum depression.
Alison Spath, international board-certified lactation consultant with Beautiful Birth Choices in Rochester, said that in the initial hours after breastfeeding, a mom’s body releases oxytocin, a hormone that causes the uterus to begin returning to its normal size. This helps control post-partum bleeding and kicks off the mom’s recovery.
It also “is a feel-good hormone that makes you fall in love with your baby and feel attached to your baby,” Spath said. “It’s very empowering when it goes well and helps when a woman feels good about herself.”
Breastfeeding doesn’t always go that way. For some moms, breastfeeding is painful and difficult. They may struggle with milk supply or helping baby latch on. Spath said that for many women who struggle, more breastfeeding support and education can help them nurse.
“If she’s just enduring it and not getting help, she’s more likely to have post-partum depression,” Spath said. “That’s why breastfeeding support is so important and why they need help if they run into trouble.”
She advises those with a history of post-partum depression or anxiety to reach out to a lactation consultant before delivery so they have an established resource ready.
Adriana Lozada, owner and post-partum educator with Birthful in Rochester, said that reducing risk of post-partum depression begins with “having realistic expectations and knowing that birth is so physically enormous, a seismic shift to your identity and body. There is no going back to where things are before. It’s a new normal.”
Though her outlook may seem scary to some moms-to-be, there’s also a positive side beyond the cherubic little face. Lozado views parenthood as a journey of self-discovery.
“You’ll learn who you are,” she said. “It can be a great opportunity to reconnect to your body.”
She encourages moms-to-be to plan for not only their delivery, but also the first three months post-partum, known colloquially as the “fourth trimester” to prevent feeling overwhelmed.
Since babies don’t have a circadian rhythm for at least three months, they often awaken during the night. They also need to eat at night.
“You’re at the mercy of their stomachs,” Lozada said. “You’re on around the clock. It’s a marathon and plan for it. Prioritize sleep and nutrition. Go easy on exercise.”
Another way to reduce risk of post-partum depression is to allow time to recover from pregnancy. Just as babies need nurturing, new moms need nurturing for their physical and mental health benefits. Lozada said that during the nine months of gestation, every cell of the mom’s body changes.
“It’s about honoring recovering,” she said. “It starts with a good fertility, birth, and delivery. Every time you get pregnant, your nutrients are deprived. You need to replenish.”
The adage to “rest when the baby rests” rings true.
Lozada urges moms to get professional resources such as lactation consultants on speed-dial long before the birth. Add to that trusted friends and family who can pitch in with housework, laundry and errands, as needed.
She tells moms to post a to-do list on the fridge.
“When helpers come, they can do something on the list to get ‘baby time,’” she said. “When people ask what they can do, direct them to that list on the fridge. They can pick one. Or maybe two or three.”
Some people assume that they’ll carry on like normal after baby is born and just add the baby onto whatever else they do. Lozada laughs at that notion.
She likens the post-partum period to a vacation —”probably the weirdest you’ll take — where parents will sleep in, eat good food, don’t do laundry, don’t go to work and set up structures so someone else takes care of the pet and your plants. It lets you get used to being parents.”
A post-partum doula can also provide light housekeeping, cooking and baby care services to help out new moms.
Anyone who experiences symptoms of depression should seek medical attention and anyone with thoughts of harming herself or anyone else should seek emergency medical help.